Silence is the best policy

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

healthThere is nothing more criminal than the conspiracy of silence. There is also nothing more abject than scientists participating in acquiescence and deceit.

Let me explain the cause of my anger. There is a little known region in central India, Singrauli, which is the energy capital of the country. This desperately poor region borders Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and generates as much as 10 per cent of the country’s coal-based power. Big plans are afoot; another 9,600 MW capacity will take the total to almost 20,000 MW and double Singrauli’s contribution to the country’s energy supply. The story of the rise of the region—two contiguous districts of Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh and Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh—on the power map of India began 50 years ago with the construction of the Rihand dam. Then came the extraction of its massive 1 billion tonnes of coal reserves. Currently, this region provides 17 per cent of India’s coal annually. More digging is planned.

It is a matter of deep concern that this region remains poor. The electricity it produces lights up others’ homes, while its villages remain in the dark. The same electricity has poisoned the people and the environment of Singrauli with mercury. What’s even more disturbing is that a top scientific institution had found mercury in the blood and hair of people more than 14 years ago but did not make its study public. It decided to submit the report to its contractor, who happened to be the main power producer in the area, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC). Then both decided to keep mum. After all, it was only a matter of deliberate poisoning of some extremely poor people in the country.

This is the story my colleagues stumbled upon when they went to do their own tests for mercury poisoning. The Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE’s) pollution monitoring laboratory picked up samples of water, soil, rice, wheat, pulses, fish, blood, hair and nail. The tests found high levels of mercury in the environment and in people’s bodies. For instance, mercury was found in roughly 60 per cent of the hair samples. More importantly, more than 10 per cent of the samples had levels more than 30 ppm, defined as “at risk” by the Canadian government, the only one to set the standard for mercury in hair.

In 1998, the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR), a premier publicly funded scientific agency based in Lucknow, tested over 1,200 people from the Singrauli region for mercury poisoning. It found high levels of mercury in humans and in the environment. But it did not make the study public. My colleagues found the data in a 2003 paper that its lead scientist published, after retirement, in a report submitted to the UN’s environment agency UNEP. But even now when we called to check on the paper, the research institution replied that it was “secret” because it was done for a client and could not be released publicly. Nobody needed to know.

The CSE study validates what government knew way back in 1998—that the region’s people were being poisoned by the deadly neurotoxin. It also finds that this deliberate neglect has meant that the contamination has grown enormously. Therefore, while the 1998 IITR study found that 66 per cent blood samples had more than 5 ppb mercury, CSE’s study in 2012 found 79 per cent blood samples had more than 15 ppb of mercury. The same is the case with hair and water samples.

It is not just scientists who are part of the conspiracy of silence. Environment regulators are equally complicit. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had done a similar study in early 2000 and found mercury poisoning. The cause of mercury is also well known. It comes from coal mining and in particular coal burning. CPCB’s own study shows that mercury concentration in Indian coal ranges from 0.09 ppm to 4.87 ppm. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) did a study on the mercury balance of thermal power plants that showed 60 per cent of the mercury is emitted in the form of gas and 30 per cent in the fly ash of a plant. Going by this estimate, Singrauli power plants emit between 15 and 50 tonnes of mercury a year.

In 2009, CPCB/MoEF declared the Singrauli region as the ninth most polluted area in the country and put a moratorium on setting up or expanding industrial units. But in 2010 it conveniently lifted the moratorium on the basis of an action plan. None of the promises made in the action plan has been kept. The plan itself is invalid because it does not mention mercury. This when the ministry knew about it.

Since the problem of mercury is not accepted, there is also no survey to identify illnesses in people living in Singrauli. Official reports show high incidence of acute and chronic illness in the region. My colleagues during their travels and interviews found countless cases of early mercury poisoning.

Until we expose the complicity of science and government in making the people of this region suffer, we will not find ways of preventing more Singraulis.

Singrauli: the coal curse

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  • The people scarified their

    The people scarified their land are in DARK and POOR. Yes, it is the reality brought out in the study made under Silence is the best policy (DTE, 15th Nov. 2012). Certainly, SILENCE is not the best policy as there exists several ways to express it. Some of the suggestions includes:

    1. The situation of the people is complex and needs immediate attention of the concerned authorities.

    2. It reflects the poor and unmatched resettlement & rehabilitation packages, which should be mandatory for all the project affected people (PAPs) which includes their surrounding environment both before and after resettlement,

    3. The control mechanism at all levels should keep the health & wealth of the people & environment in mind,

    4. The whole process of exploitation and generation of power is aimed as BUSINESS of selected group of people rather than the larger group of people who sacrificed their land and other community resources.

    In spite of all adverse challenges, using the available technologies, concerned authorities can improves the situation where people can live with better quality of life. On the other side, it will become good role model for others to accept and support such developmental projects.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Sunita Narain: Thank

    Dear Ms. Sunita Narain:

    Thank you so much for bringing to light the darkness of Singrauli region. But once again, your editorial is wrongly titled. It is not at all about silence. It is about the failure of environmental NGOs that receive millions in aids and donations from different sources to actually identify, raise, and publicise such issues, ensuring that necessary action is taken. It is also a failure of local governments, that are responsible for looking after their territories and notifying the state and central governments, if something is beyond their scope. Therefore, better to hold them responsible for this poor condition of this region and not the scientists or scientific institutions who were working on specific projects with terms and conditions attached. Also, CPCB and MOEF studies, as reported in your article, show that they in part were certainly doing their jobs. Somebody should have taken it forward. Better late than never. Now itÔÇÖs your turn to take it to a respectable end. And thatÔÇÖs the job of NGOs. IsnÔÇÖt it? So now we will see how long this breakin of silence lasts, disproving that silence is the best policy.

    Sincerely yours;

    K D Bhardwaj

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I thank the authors for

    I thank the authors for bringing out the truth regarding the poor people of Singrauli. I pray God give justice to them as soon as possible and save them from severe illnesses and from deadly toxic substances as they are too poor to fight against the injustice done to them. I appreciate the work of CSE to bring to light these facts to light.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • If you read this article in

    If you read this article in the context of PM's recent directions to ministers and cabinet secretaries not to get carried away by the environmental objections while creating an invetment friendly climate in our country, one gets angrier. There are hundreds of instances when I hit my head on the wall in utter desperation

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • It is a critical issue and

    It is a critical issue and often neglected. Most of the times the original inhabitants of the place have to compromise on their own development and well-being to provide the same for thousands miles away who they don't even know. It's unfair. These people have to be given their rights as individuals, the government cannot risk thier lives for others. Some kind of a measure to stop the deteriorating environmental standards should be taken up. The Central government needs to take a stand and behave a sensitively to these issues.

    Thanks for this highly informative article.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • This is a case of clash

    This is a case of clash between energy needs of India and environmental concerns. Both are of vital significance for the growth of India. Wisdom lies in efficient and effective recycling of mercury and adopting standard time tested techniques to ward off Hg poisoning of peoplein the area. It is the CPCB which is the culprit; it has failed to monitor, regulate and take precautionary measures to prevent environmental disasters and silent killers. Silence of people, including scientists, shows their helplessness since the bureaucratic, industrial and political lobbys just do not care about them. What has happened to Pepsi after the presence of pesticides in their soft drinks was proved. Film actors of India stand in queue and gallop to support Pepsi soft drinks?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • CSE has always pointed out

    CSE has always pointed out the country's environmental problems like the one in Singrauli. As the environment versus development debate goes on, it is essential to internalise environmental costs into the economics of power and ensure mercury and other flue byproducts are removed from the air. A similar debate should also be held about Gujarat which, though highly industrialised, is also the worst polluted state in India. Nobody talks about this and it should, like Singrauli, be made an issue.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for making it

    Thanks for making it visible.
    What is the solution?
    Is it possible to extract mercury from emissions?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply